Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance

70 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2013 Last revised: 26 Nov 2014

See all articles by Debra S. Austin

Debra S. Austin

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Date Written: March 8, 2014


Law is a cognitive profession and the legendary stressors in legal education and the practice of law can take a tremendous toll on cognitive capacity. Lawyers suffer from depression at triple the rate of non-lawyers. This article provides a groundbreaking synthesis on the neuroscience of achieving optimal cognitive fitness for all law students, law professors, and lawyers.

A number of innovative companies have instituted programs designed to enhance the bottom line. Research shows that perks such as onsite gyms, stress management classes, and mindfulness training produce vibrant workplaces and thriving employees. Forward-looking law schools have created wellness programs designed to relieve law student stress and improve well-being. This article explains the neurobiological reasons these programs enhance employee performance and improve student achievement.

Law school admissions are down, students are questioning the value of legal education, and the Carnegie Report is pressuring law schools to make legal education more practical. Learning about the neuroscience of cognitive wellness is critical to protecting brain function and enhancing cognitive performance. Legal educators have the power to bring this information to the attention of their law students, and to create a neuroscience-powered achievement culture in law schools. Law students need not wait for lethargic faculty deliberation of the impact a stressful law school learning environment has on their learning. Their professional identity, along with their capacity to build practice skills and a legal knowledge base, are at risk. Law students, law faculty, and lawyers should be educated about mitigating stress-related damage to the hippocampus, the role of sleep in memory formation, and enhancing cognitive function with exercise and contemplative practices.

Neural self-hacking is likely to be the newest fitness movement. Law schools and law firms that want to support robust cognitive performance for their constituents will follow Google’s lead and create achievement cultures designed to optimize cognitive wellness and limit sources of stress. With fresh insights into the complex world of brain function, this article explains brain structure; describes the parts of the brain used in cognition; and details how stress damages and kills brain cells. Neuroscience-based recommendations uncover the power of self-directed neuroplasticity in every law student, law professor, and lawyer to optimize cognition.

Suggested Citation

Austin, Debra S., Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance (March 8, 2014). 59 LOY. L. REV. 791 (2013), U Denver Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-12, Available at SSRN: or

Debra S. Austin (Contact Author)

University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )

2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States

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